This article touches on why our keynote speaker and former professional footballer Clarke Carlisle does not believe in bringing your ‘whole self’ to work, particularly for men, and explains why he has a better idea. He also touches on his own journey to wellness, his marriage, toxic masculinity, talking about feelings and honesty at work, the problem of HR, racism and why there should be more expectation around accessing services.
Former Premier League footballer Clarke Carlisle captivated the audience when he took to the stage at MAD World in October 2022, to talk about his journey to mental wellbeing, which included multiple suicide attempts.
We’ve invited him back to deliver the keynote at The Watercooler Event in April, where he is again headlining, but this time alongside his wife Carrie. Her background is in media and journalism, the pair having met while both campaigning at a Kick It Out anti-discrimination event.
Clarke and Carrie will be sharing the insights they have gained, how their relationship has been instrumental to recovery, and how these learnings can be applied to the workplace.
We caught up with Clarke ahead of the event to find out more…
Bit of a leftfield first question, so bear with me… You and Carrie are married, have two daughters together and work together. One of our most read articles is about how divorce grief causes one in eight employees to leave a company. Do you have any tips on making a relationship work?
We do, but then we make it work because we’ve got a foundation that is stratospherically different to most other relationships.
I was fresh out of psychiatric hospital when I first met Carrie. Most first dates might have seen that as a huge red flag! But understanding wellness, communication, emotions, feelings and thought processes were embedded from the beginning.
On our second date, I brought her my full psychiatric evaluation because I wanted her to know what she was getting into and the direction I wanted to take with my life. So there was this brutal level of honesty in our communication.
There’s very rarely been anything unsaid between us, definitely not to do with our wellness. So, yes, to answer your question, we can give loads of advice on how to foster and nurture a relationship but it’s from a basis that very few relationships begin.
Carrie’s background is journalism and media and you met her because you were both ambassadors for Kick It Out. What was she campaigning around?
She’s done a lot of work, such as mentoring, with women around addictive behaviours, predominantly alcohol. She’s been sober for nearly 18 years now.
Now, in our work together, she talks about the journey we’ve been on together and the fact that, before, she might have seen those moments of difficulty, or crisis even, as a sign that she was ‘broken’. But, now, with the understanding that we’ve fostered, we see that ‘broken’ made us ‘break open’… it’s at that point that you allow yourself the opportunity to fill your lack of awareness or consciousness with more understanding. But, to do that, you have to let others, like professionals, look into what’s going on in your little void, which takes courage and vulnerability.
When you delivered your excellent keynote for MAD World in October it was done in a ‘fireside chat’ style, with you talking about your personal mental health journey. At the Watercooler in April 2023 you’re being joined by Carrie. When you deliver mental health sessions together now, what do you usually talk about?
Our main area of work is corporate keynote deliveries, which can vary from six minutes to six hours! But we also do full and half day workshops. There are two general areas of focus: either EDI in the workplace or mental health.
At the Watercooler, I’ll probably speak for the first half an hour, then hand over to Carrie to get her perspective, then we’ll do a Q&A together.
You’ve been dubbed the “brainiest” footballer in Britain and are clearly very articulate – but you say you didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate your difficult feelings, and used alcohol to manage and escape them. Getting men to talk about feelings in the workplace can be a big challenge – what advice do you have? What helped you?
I was suppressing certain emotions that I didn’t know how to process. My biggest breakthrough came when I was able to share my emotions honestly with someone who didn’t have a vested interest in me, and me not feeling they had to like me or be impressed by me.
Was that the late Peter Kay, former professional footballer [and founder of the Sporting Chance Clinic with former England footballer/Arsenal captain Tony Adams) who you’ve mentioned before?
Yes. It showed me that it was possible for me to be honest with someone, and for them to reciprocate and still value, like, respect and support me. But it took a long time to get me to that interaction. And even longer before I could recreate that in my ‘real world’ life.
To what extent do you think workplaces can realistically create environments where men can feel that way?
One aspect I rail against [which is currently trendy in the employee wellbeing discussion] is this idea of bringing your ‘whole self’ to work. I actually don’t think that’s appropriate. It’s a working environment – you need to be professional. Men naturally compartmentalise their lives. We do it innately. So, when we put our ‘mask’ on, or adopt our professional persona at work, that doesn’t need to feed into imposter syndrome or feeling like a fraud. What’s important, I think, is that we have a compartment where we are dealing with whatever it is we need to be dealing with to be well. So the focus needs to be in understanding effective and positive compartmentalisation.
How can employers help that? Do you mean that, for example, employers could give them a place that’s appropriate to deal with that ‘compartment’, like access to therapy or another intervention?
100%. Employers need to be able to offer access to, not just a service, but an array of services, because we are so individual in what we need and respond to.
But the most critical thing that needs to happen is an expectation that these services will be accessed. Not just if you’re feeling off, or you’re having a crisis, but as a matter of course to keep well. It should be part of an employee’s annual appraisal. Managers should be saying things like ‘I see you haven’t accessed our services’ and having a conversation about that.
The fact that employees aren’t accessing services enough was a topic brought up by Carol Frost, Chief People Officer, at Metro Bank in her pre-Watercooler interview, too. What else can we do to encourage access?
What Carrie and I try to do is be the segue between personal experience and normalising access to services.
Do you think it’s stigma that stops people accessing services?
There are multiple reasons, one of them being stigma, especially in a male dominated environment, where there are archaic or traditional views of masculinity.
And that’s not just for men, that’s for hegemonic masculinity [the practice of legitimising men’s dominant position] as well because you often see that in the workplace; a lot of people that identify as female will display masculine traits and behaviours because they think that’s what they need to show in order to be part of the team, or to have success.
But the largest aspect within the workplace is the scepticism about the confidentiality of accessing support services. If you have this idea that accessing services is a sign of weakness, or it will be perceived as weakness, then you won’t want to do that. Afterall, we operate in a self preservation society. If an employee thinks that accessing services is going to affect their employability, or chance of promotion, they’re not going to do it.
Another critical problem, for me, is that these services are usually facilitated by HR…HR is the very department that assesses whether you fit and capable to work. It’s the very department that assesses you in the context of hiring and firing. So why would you want to go through HR to access services?
You mentioned toxic masculinity. And I’ve heard you talk about, when you were starting out as a footballer craving acceptance, having to make the conscious decision of whether to “confront or conform”, especially as a young black man trying to achieve your dream. Do you think there is still an element of that in all workplaces?
It all comes down to that team environment and team dynamic. There’s a very different generation of employee coming through today, though. My eldest daughter’s generation [Francesca, age 24] and those coming after her, have a greater comprehension of the value of self – not just their personal worth, but also the importance of their personal values, be they cultural, religious, spiritual, or whatever. They want them, at a minimum, to be respected by employers.
In terms of conforming, did you feel the extra pressure of race behind you?
I felt the isolation of my race in my upbringing.
I grew up in a heavily white council estate and went to a heavily white school. I’m talking 99% white. So I felt the difference, the ‘othering’. But rather than feeling intimidated, or discriminated against, it fed into my need to win people over. I created a social chameleon persona adapting to fit in but meant I had zero identity of my own. I never knew which of these aspects of me were the real me.
And, actually, our race wasn’t spoken about in our home life. In some homes, regardless of where they are physically located, it’s like stepping into another country because the cultural heritage is so visible and tangible. It wasn’t like that for me.
In my house we were taught that, to be successful, we had to speak the Queen’s English and walk a certain way, etc. So it was very confusing. We didn’t speak like our extended family. We didn’t speak like the Black people in the Preston community.
You know what? I think I might have even been a bit racist when I was growing up because I was actively trying to be as ‘unblack’ as possible. It’s also why we actively encourage our children to discover who they are [he has five children, 4 daughters and one son ranging from 3 to 24 years old].
Not knowing who I really am, after all, has been at the heart of my mental health problems and is at the heart of the message I’ll be delivering at The Watercooler in April.
To meet Clarke and Carrie in person, and contribute to the conversation come along to our sister event the Watercooler on April 25th and 26th, 2023.
The Watercooler, named in recognition of those crucial moments of connection between employees, is a free to attend conference and exhibition which demonstrates that wellbeing IS the future of work. For themes that were ‘hot topics’ at last year’s event, see this article.
Taking place at Excel London, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape.
For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here.
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